Work-life balance and the sense of significance

I’ve spent a frantic week of trying to get things done before going on vacation. It’s reminded me that work-life balance doesn’t come easy.


I don’t know about you. I have this tendency to think that, before I go on a vacation, I should finish as much as possible. The result usually is that by the day the vacation starts, I am powered out. But at the same time, I haven’t been able to get all the things done I set out to do.

This last week was one of those weeks. I had impossible plans for myself (I won’t even bother to reveal what all I had on my list). Then, unexpectedly we received proofs for a new paper (“please return within 24 hours” — you know the drill); a draft came back from a co-author, opening up the possibility that it, too, could be finished before the vacation (not on the original list, mind you), and I had forgotten that I had promised a student to grade her thesis before I leave.

In the attempt to live up to my self-imposed goals, I skipped sports, spent far too little time with my family, and worked until late at night every day. Now, I’m out of balance, tired, and overworked.

When I left the office on Friday afternoon to start my vacation, one of my PhDs pulled up this cartoon for me – quite the perfect description for the trap I’d once again failed to avoid.

Why is it so easy to get wound up with too much work?

I think, it boils down to the sense of significance. There are actually two kinds of that. The first kind is the idea that my projects won’t run without me — I’m important for work. The other kind stems from the tendency to use work to define myself — work is important for me.

Step one on the way out is to put both in perspective: to take a deep breath and realize that my team members will do just fine while I’m gone; what wasn’t done now will get done next. And to re-evaluate and remember that work is great, but not all there is. To land back on earth and be realistic about how much can be done in a day.

Step two on the way out is to get back into a sustainable routine: get enough sleep, do sports, spend time with partner and family. Because I get more done when I’m rested, fit, and grounded in knowing that my kids couldn’t care less whether parietal cortex transforms skin-based coordinates into an external-spatial code or not, but get excited when I teach them to walk, practice riding a bike, or take them to watch Fack ju Göhte 2.

By chance, Stu McLaren and Michael Hyatt had a podcast episode on achieving work-life balance this week. I mean, talk about coincidence. Their podcast, This is your life, is of the kind that mostly reminds you of things you should know and do, but forgot and neglect. One of their main points was that balance is intentional. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen.

Chances are that as a science PI, you’re driven and used to pushing yourself to the limit. From time to time, ask yourself whether the pace you’re going at is sustainable.

Balance doesn’t just happen. But it happens quickly that you lose it.

Any thoughts you have on this are welcome. Use the comments section below!

Photo credit: Unsplash

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